CZ/SK verze

Railway Giants: How Money Deprived Czech Genius František Antonín Gerstner of Eternal Glory

Railway Giants: How Money Deprived Czech Genius František Antonín Gerstner of Eternal Glory
photo: Simon Legner (User:simon04) / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0/Bust of František Antonín
04 / 01 / 2024

"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree." This saying perfectly describes František Antonín Gerstner, the son of the distinguished professor František Josef Gerstner. The story of the man behind the first railway boom in Europe, full of fluctuations on the border of success and failure, is the focus of the next part of our Railway Giants series.

Like Father, Like Son

April 1796 marks the birth of František Antonín in the home of František Josef Gerstner, a professor at the Prague Polytechnic, and his wife Gabriela. For the son of one of the leading Czech engineers, developing a passion for technology was almost predestined. His parents, having clear expectations for his future, guided him towards this path, and he, quite understandably, did not resist. After studying at the Faculty of Philosophy of Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague, he continued his education at the newly established Prague Polytechnic.

František Antonín’s journey then took him to the Vienna Polytechnic, where he primarily studied geometry and geodesy. In 1819, his father definitively endorsed the railway as the most efficient option for connecting the Vltava and the Danube. He presented irrefutable calculations showing it to be more advantageous than the centuries-old idea of connecting the Danube and Vltava by water. However, it was František Antonín who was entrusted with the construction of the track for horse-drawn vehicles. Recognized as extremely gifted in the field, he was a more suitable choice for such a construction than a 65-year-old engineer.

Carriage Builder

Throughout the construction, František Antonín strictly adhered to his father's principles. He refused to cut costs on materials, being one of the first to realize that the era of horse-drawn carriages was nearing its end. At this time, in nearby Great Britain, George Stephenson was building the first non-animal-powered railway lines. František Antonín became aware of this during his first study trip to England in 1822. Therefore, he insisted that the track be constructed with such care that it could accommodate steam locomotives in the future, instead of just horses.

ČTK / Public domain

However, this tactic also proved to be considerably more expensive. Additionally, Gerstner was determined to adhere to his father's principles of a direct route without losing the altitude gained. This approach necessitated the construction of a large number of bridges, making the project unbearably expensive. The timing was also not favorable for such ambitious projects. Just a few years earlier, the Austrian Empire and its allies had dealt with Napoleon, whose troops had ravaged the old continent for several years. Money was still scarce, and understandably, no one wanted to invest large sums in an uncertain project like the railway, which was still largely untried.

Consequently, Gerstner found himself in disputes with the shareholders and was dismissed from his position as construction manager. He was replaced by Austrian engineer Matyáš Schröner, who was tasked with completing the work as cheaply as possible. Schröner managed to fulfill this difficult task to the letter. However, Gerstner’s genius was not fully recognized until 40 years later, when the line was converted to steam. The sections built under Gerstner’s supervision were able to easily adapt to the changes, while others had to undergo significant reconstruction.

After his dismissal in 1828, František Antonín undertook another study trip to England, where he witnessed the final phase of Stephenson's railway project connecting Manchester with Liverpool. Upon his return, he lectured at the Prague Polytechnic between 1830 and 1832, representing his ill father. Additionally, he advocated for the publication of his father's book, 'Handbuch der Mechanik', to which he added his own treatise on English railways, drawing on his extensive travel experiences.


In 1834, two years after his father’s death, František Antonín traveled to Russia at the invitation of Czar Nicholas I, where he was tasked with designing horse-drawn railways. The Tsar commissioned him to design a line between St. Petersburg and Moscow. However, Gerstner again faced challenges due to his financial demands for the construction. Eventually, a shorter option connecting St. Petersburg with Pavlovsk was approved and built under Gerstner’s leadership between 1835-1837. Notably, the young Czech engineer Jan Perner, who would play a significant role in future railway development, gained experience on this construction site.

Gerstner’s condescending behavior on the construction site made it nearly impossible for others to work with him. Consequently, his subordinates frequently changed, and Gerstner was unforgiving of even the slightest mistakes. The talented engineer Perner was also affected by this. Despite these challenges, Gerstner successfully completed the construction, marking a significant achievement and the only major project he would see through from start to finish.

Christian Doppler / Public domain

After his time in Russia, Gerstner traveled to the USA for study purposes, focusing on the development of railways there. He found the experience enjoyable. However, this happiness was short-lived, as František Antonín tragically died in 1840 at the age of only 45 from injuries sustained in a traffic accident.

Thus ends the life journey of a man whose metaphorical apple fell right under his native tree, albeit very deeply. His fate remained overlooked for several decades and was not fully recognized until many years after his death.